Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Eco-Woodworking article published.

What is Eco-Woodworking?
It's a bit like the woodworking equivalent of the Slow Food Movement. It's about making consicous choices regarding the wood we use, the tools we use, and the way in which we approach the craft. 
In a nutshell, it is working with wood as if the planet matters...

I subscribe to several woodworking magazines from around the world, including the USA, the UK and Australia. One of my favourites would be "British Woodworking", which comes from the same stable as the wonderful "Living Woods" Magazine - both from Freshwood Publishing in the UK.

The December 2012/January 2013 edition of British Woodworking magazine published an article I had written about Eco-Woodworking.

First page of the published article. 

The text version of the article has been re-printed below, with the kind permission of the publisher:

Eco-Woodwork Australian Greg Miller explains why approaches and tools are changing

The challenge for sustainable living on our precious planet invariably leads us to question and modify all aspects of our lives and lifestyles. We face many choices as we seek to embrace the ideals and concepts bound up in the notion of reducing our footprint on the earth.

As a woodworker, this invariably means I have some key choices to make. For want of a better term, ‘Eco-woodworking’ is a concept I describe as an attempt to do woodwork in ways which are more friendly to the planet. Eco-woodworking consumes less of the world’s resources, reflects a greater commitment to social justice, embodies a greater respect for the trees and forests of the world, and is healthier for my mind and body and for those around me.
For centuries, woodworkers have enjoyed using spectacular woods from around the globe. The expansionist centuries of European colonialism saw a wonderful smorgasbord of exotic timber come into common usage by craftsmen in Europe as they sought to satisfy the demands and fashions of their buying public.

In the process, little consideration was given to the destruction of forest ecosystems, the dislocation of indigenous communities, and the devastation of complex biosystems. As one species was depleted and became scarce, another would take its place. So much was wasted, because the world’s forests were treated as infinite. This residual subconscious belief that wood is an infinite resource continues to haunt us today. Huge areas of forest are still clear-felled, and pushed up and burnt, while smaller logs are left on the logged forest floor as residue, because it is seen as ‘uneconomic’ to process them. The ‘recovery rate’ from timber trees, ie. the proportion of the total tree and/or the saw logs which is converted to useable timber, continues to be very low despite advances in sawmilling technology.

All over the world, timber is wasted in huge volumes every day as it is discarded and dumped in landfill. Here it decomposes slowly over decades, generating harmful greenhouse gases. So much of it would have been re-useable, or could have been converted into energy by burning. Wood recycling efforts too often involve chipping wood for landscaping mulches, soil mixes, poultry sheds, and other low grade uses.

One option is to resist the urge to use new timber logged from endangered tropical hardwood forests and temperate old growth forests [unless you are confident the trees have reached maturity and are felled selectively, NG]. If you are going to buy ‘new’ timber, choose re-growth and plantation timbers where you can, from sustainably-managed forests. 

We can re-use timber obtained from salvage, demolished buildings, dismantled furniture, and other sources. Look with fresh eyes at packing crates and pallets, discarded furniture and other sources. Learn to use it and value it as a resource. You’ll be amazed at the beautiful timbers that are available - often for free or for minimal cost because the general populace does not value this material. 

Value the trees 
Trees are essential to the planet as the lungs of the world. As trees convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, one of the by-products is carbon, which is sequestered into the biomass of the tree itself. We need more trees to sequester carbon and reduce the CO2 in the air, and when trees are logged we should be utilising this valuable resource as much as possible and replacing those trees with more.

It has been suggested that as much as 50% of a piece of wood is carbon. Wood is a very low energy material to produce, needing considerably less power than steel, concrete and particularly aluminum to produce. It continues to be a durable, low energy renewable material which has excellent thermal insulation properties amongst other benefits.

No untreated timber should be going into landfill, and if it cannot be recycled it should be burnt in efficient purpose-built fireboxes, kilns and power stations with scrubbers. The growing of trees can take up the carbon emitted into the atmosphere by combustion. Thus the potential is there to create a closed carbon cycle for energy production.

We need trees for energy production and for timber, for shelter/shade, for food, and for habitat for other creatures. However we need to value timber, and plant many more trees than we are planting now.

In my part of the world [Australia] activists wave placards outside furniture retailers who use timber from old growth forests, but few people seem to appreciate the need to call for the responsible re-use of timber from trees logged many decades ago. Much of this timber is contained in the houses and buildings which are being demolished every day and the timber trucked off into landfill.

Tools and machines

Hand tools have been used by to work wood for millennia, and machinery for centuries, and power tools for only a few decades. We need tools to work the timber, to cut, shape, joint and dimension the material. Hand tools have evolved over the centuries in line with technological developments, though it could be argued these developments peaked around the time of the First World War. The post Second World War era saw the decline in quality of hand tools at the same time power tools were beginning to take their place.

Most of the tools available in the big hardware stores today are manufactured in overseas factories where labour is cheap. The materials are predominantly low grade, and the tools are made for a price – the lowest price. However this low price comes at a high price to the environment. Even low grade steel takes an enormous amount of energy to produce.

Buying hardpoints
Cheap hardpoint hand saws are not able to be sharpened, as the saw plate is too soft as a low grade steel. In the manufacture of these saws the teeth are cut and then hardened through heat treatment. When blunt, these saws are tossed into the bin, to rust slowly in landfill. All that energy, all those resources which went into the digging up of the ore, the production of the steel, the manufacture of the saws and their distribution around the world – only to end up in landfill along with their nasty plastic handles. Clearly, this is not sustainable for the planet.

Meanwhile it is cheaper to buy another ‘throwaway’ hardpoint saw than to have a good quality traditional saw sharpened professionally.

I remember taking a good saw to my local sawdoctor. "Here," he said as he passed me a hardpoint saw off the shelf, "Save yourself some money." It was $7.00 for a new saw, or $20 to sharpen my great grandfather’s beautiful old Disston saw (which I use every day). I told him I did not want to play that game. My saw has been sharpened many times over the last 100 years and there was no reason my great grandchildren won’t be able to keep using it too – so long as there remains enough sawplate left to sharpen!

In making this choice I am honouring the planet. I am also honouring the saw itself, its previous owners (all wonderful craftsmen) whose sweat is mingled with mine in the wonderful patina of the high quality comfortable wooden handle, and those who toiled over it’s manufacture in Philadelphia sometime between 1897 and 1913.

Choosing the cheap ‘disposable’ saw is choosing to contribute to the unsustainable madness of our resource hungry consumerist lifestyle. Sure it costs me more money to keep making this choice, but at a greatly reduced cost to the planet.

Hand tool quality
While the quality of hand tools has continued to decline since the Second World War, the recent renaissance in hand tool woodworking in the western world has in response seen the emergence of boutique hand tool manufacturers who are producing very high quality tools. These are not cheap, but are made to last. They are a good investment if you have the money to buy them.

My preference is to buy good quality old tools from garage sales and flea markets, and to clean them up and bring them back to life. Sure, I am a bargain hunter who likes the thrill of the hunt and the joy of bringing back into use tools which have many stories to tell. It is affordable and does not support the ecologically unsustainable trade in cheap low quality new tools.

There are exponents of this unplugged approach, who have removed many of the machines and power tools from their workshops in favour of hand tools. These include well known US woodworkers and writers Jim Tolpin and Christopher Schwarz, and Nick Gibbs has recently put some of his machines out on loan to a friend.

What is this about? Screaming routers, noisy machines and the essential ear muffs are being put aside to enjoy the full sensual woodworking experience, where you can hear, see, smell and feel the interaction of your tool with the piece of timber you are working. No electricity needed, as you supply the energy. The health and well-being benefits of the physical and mental activity are immense. People working together can talk to each other while they work, so there are social benefits as well.

Hand in hand with the resurgence of interest in hand tool use is the renewal of interest in traditional skills and techniques, which have proved themselves over the centuries. This is seeing publishers like Lost Art Press and Toolemera Press re-printing old trades books from previous centuries and publishing new books which document and teach the old skills and techniques. Good timing, as too many of these skills and techniques were in danger of being lost.

There is immense pleasure to be found in creating things with our hands. The activity is both good for the body and good for the soul. Eco-woodworking is a holistic approach to enjoying and doing woodwork. It reflects a deep respect for trees, and values wood as a gift from the trees. It appreciates good old tools and respects the traditional skills and techniques. It is thoughtful about the use of the world’s resources, and rejoices in the sense of wholeness and pleasure derived from the physical and sensual activity of hand tool woodworking. The woodworking equivalent of the ‘slow food’ movement.

Details. Greg Miller is a professional woodworker living in Perth, Australia. With his trailer packed full of benches and hand tools, Greg is mobile and can be found sharing the joy of wood in schools, at festivals, in community centres, people's backyards and other locations. He predominantly uses recycled timber which has been rescued. He particularly delights in teaching hand skills and techniques to people of all ages.
So there it is... the article, much edited down from my original draft! 
Thanks to Nick Gibbs the magazine's editor and publisher for giving permission to re-produce the published article.

I enjoy my subscriptions to British Woodworking and Living Woods magazines. It's always a delight when they arrive in the mail. Both a very good read...

1 comment:

  1. Hi Greg,

    I just wanted to say thanks for writing this excellent blog. I'm only a beginner at woodworking and I've been tinkering around with a pile of secondhand timber that was given to me a few months back. This blog has given me some ideas and inspiration. In fact, I went out this morning to the local tip shop and scored a Disston D-8 for $1 (it'll need a sharpen, but the handle is in good nick so it'll be worth it), and a German made pallet for $2. The tip shop had all types of pallets made from all types of timber and built in all parts of the world. A real treasure trove of materials to work with!

    thanks again